A couple of nights ago, I was reading the first few pages of a book I’d downloaded as a sample onto my Kindle. It’s one of the latest best-selling psychological thrillers, and I was trying decide whether to read the whole thing. But when I came upon the following sentence, I knew immediately that, no, this book wasn’t for me.
She was a marvellous cook, for example, after all the gourmet cuisine courses I made sure she attended.
So maybe you’re scratching your head and asking, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ or maybe you’re thinking that I’m going to say something about it being sexist. Well, I’m not – that’s fine. The narrator is a murderous husband with a very sexist attitude towards his wife.
No, the thing that gave me pause when I read that sentence was the sheer clumsiness of the writer. It’s part of a long passage of narrated exposition, in which she’s telling, not showing, details of their relationship—and in a very heavy-handed way. There’s no nuance, no subtlety. It hits you like a sledgehammer. And this is the fourth super best-selling psycho thriller that I’ve come across in a row that has had issues of, I suppose, heavy-handedness. Writing down to the reader, possibly on purpose to garner a larger readership. The plots these writers come up with may be fiendishly clever, but they obviously don’t expect their readers to be.
So what’s this got to do with writing erotica?
Let’s rewind a few months to the beginning of the summer. I was lucky enough to have lunch, on a sunny day in July, with Remittance Girl, who’s a fascinating and charming dining companion in equal measure. One of the first things she did, as I tucked into a giant Wiener schnitzel and a glass of Côtes du Rhône, was ask me why I wrote erotica and what I hoped to achieve. I answered: to entertain people, to make money, to have a bestseller, to see someone reading a book I wrote on the underground…
And I meant it then. However, in the space of a few short months, things have changed.
After talking to RG and having many, many conversations on writing erotica with my close friend Malin James, I’ve come to realise that my glib answer that day was not why I write at all. Not these days, anyway. Yes, I started writing erotica, chasing the market and penning what I thought readers wanted – which is pretty much what you have to do to get them reading you on trains and buses and planes. Now, however, I’m thrilled that my two thirds of a schlocky vampire trilogy has disappeared since its publisher went under. (Although there’s still plenty more on my backlist that I’d rather you didn’t see.) Because, the way I’m writing and what I want to write is changing.
When I stumbled across that bombastic piece of exposition the other night, my thoughts finally crystallized.
No, I don’t want to write for the bestseller market. Because you can’t afford subtlety and nuance if you want to sell a million books. You can’t write characters with less attractive facets. You can’t write strange, or repulsive, or different. If you want a bestseller in erotica or romance, your leading man needs to be ripped. I hate writing about alpha males with muscles. They’re simply not attractive to me – in real life or in fiction. Your heroine needs to be a little quirky, but not too much. I hate quirky. The thought of writing a quirky heroine actually makes me feel physically sick. And I don’t want to be castigated by readers because, god forbid, my characters don’t use condoms, smoke cigarettes and drink industrial quantities of vodka. Yes, believe me, I have been. Only now I want to write about people who do far worse—and more interesting—things than that.
I’ve reached a stage where I want to write about people who are actually fascinating to me. As a writer, you spend a lot of time in your characters’ company. And I don’t care to hang out with the sort of bland stereotypes that people the bestsellers of erotica or any other popular genre. And, moreover, I’m pretty rubbish at writing them. The heroine of my current fantasy BDSM series was supposed to be the perfect submissive. But she’s not. She came out fully formed and can’t submit to save her life. Her Dom and I have spent the duration of ten monthly episodes, so far, trying to get her to submit and we’ve both failed! And the series is a hell of a lot more interesting for it, thank goodness.
Perhaps admitting that I can’t control my characters doesn’t sound like progression as a writer. But I would argue that it is. These characters are actual people rather than cardboard cut-outs. Last week, I wrote a short for a very specific super-sexy submission call. But no one told the characters in the story about the sub call and they behaved just the way they wanted to. Despite being massively over-stretched by my day job and other writing commitments, this story extruded itself from my brain, the way it wanted to be, rather than how the call might have wanted it. Whether it will make the cut, I’ll have to wait and see, but my middle-aged, bereaved, pregnant heroine won’t care either way. She has other things to worry about!
So, this brings me full circle to the perennial question: do you write for the market or do you write for yourself? My answer to that question has changed, irrevocably now. I don’t want to confine myself to the tired tropes required for mass market success. And for me, that signifies growth as a writer. I don’t know where this new imperative will lead, but I’m excited and I’m happy about it.